Multicultural marketing: Don’t misfire with your next campaign
By Matt Pigott
Your audience is more diverse than ever, take care to make marketing that›s still relevant.
There was a time when multicultural marketing amounted to little more than sticking a branded billboard outside a village in Laos, or placing a badly dubbed American advertisement on French television and thinking of it as ‘job done’. But these simplistic tactics were ignorant to the subtle cultural and ethnic meanings and references that would come to characterise global markets. In a multifaceted world, you need multifaceted marketing solutions, and understanding the nuanced differences between ethnic groups and cultural expectations is a prerequisite for producing meaningful marketing campaigns.
HSBC’s famous television ad ‘Eels’ highlights the sometimes comedic value of cultural misunderstanding: a Westerner at a business meeting in China doesn’t want to be deemed rude, and so eats everything on his plate to show his appreciation. His hosts take this as a signal that he is still hungry, and continue to bring more and more food – in this case fish – to him. Determined not to cause offense, the bemused businessman continues to clear his plate while his equally baffled hosts continue to bring out more food. In the final scene, what looks like a six-foot live conger eel in a large see-through bag, is brought to the terrified, terribly stuffed visitor.
This ad highlights how easily poor communication based on a limited understanding can precipitate an unwelcome result. It’s a challenge that Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) carrying brand messages into new territories will face as demographics change, and technology creates new hybrids of taste, style, language and perception.
There is no one-size-fits-all marketing method, and expecting other cultures to accept a ‘standardised’ message could doom a campaign to failure. It’s staggering, then, to think that even the biggest companies are still capable of taking the woeful step across the fine line that separates the comical from the insulting.
Take the recent Mountain Dew advertisement, widely attacked by Americans as being racist for its depiction of a substance addicted, criminal goat in a line-up of stereotyped African American ‘hoodlums’. Despite the video being directed by an African American – in this case the rapper Tyler –the material was deigned too rich for public consumption and, following a widespread backlash, withdrawn by Pepsi, which owns the Mountain Dew brand.
The need for multicultural sensitivity and multicultural marketing messages being on point has rarely been more pressing. By 2044, more than half of all Americans are projected to belong to a minority (any group other than non-Hispanic White alone), and by 2060, nearly one in five of the nation’s total population is projected to be foreign born.
CMOs will need to assess and reassess their marketing campaigns in light of these changes, which, while daunting from a logistical point of view, equally pose exciting new opportunities to grow, develop and engage new communities in ways that can be viewed as truly progressive. Cross border marketing (as in marketing US brands in different countries) is a major area for consideration, but multicultural marketing right on the doorstep is a more obvious place to start with regions potentially acting as viable testing grounds for future global campaign launches.
When it comes to wider scale, above-the-line marketing and advertising campaigns, being well versed in accepted cultural norms is crucial. If you want to use Spanish in marketing to second or third generation Latin Americans, it helps if first you can speak it.
Burger King has found itself in the firing line on a number of occasions, but rarely more so than with its ‘Texican Whopper’ ad. “The taste of Texas with a little spicy Mexican” was one sentence that formed part of a narrative in which a tiny Mexican wearing a cape and mask the colours of the Mexican flag shacks up with a tall, all-American cowboy. 30 seconds of non-stop cultural clichés led to an outcry that saw the company yank the ad in less time than it took to say “spicy Mexican.”
Assumptions made in direct translations are equally deadly. When the American Dairy Association ran a campaign with the snappy slogan, “Got Milk?” had they known the phrase is more frequently used to ask “are you lactating?” in Spanish, they would have come up with a better line.
And “Come Alive”, a Pepsi slogan, when it was directly translated into Chinese, became: “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead,” a bold claim, even from a company with a $145 billion market cap.
Cultural demographics in the US are changing fast. Alienating large markets with inappropriate, ill-considered marketing is commercial suicide. In the future, the silver bullet may be true personalisation where every consumer-brand relationship plays out at the individual level, but that is decades away and still won’t take care of most above-the-line marketing, which needs to appeal to broader audiences and resonate on multiple levels.
Taking advantage of cultural variants such as identity, food traditions, religious practices, hair and beauty differentials, or any other facets of race and ethnicity to engage and persuade will almost certainly be a key strategy for most brands moving deeper into the millennium, but that will need to be based on thorough research, handled sensitively and executed with real purpose and precision.
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